Ayse Erkmen “Tidvatten”

Foreword by Richard Julin, curator Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall.
Ayse Erkmen at the Treshold essay by Daniel Birnbaum, director of the Städelschule in Frankfurt and contributing editor of Artforum.
Exhibition catalogue no 28.
ISBN 91-974236-2-9
51 pages, color, illustrated, hard cover. Texts in Swedish/English.
ISBN 91-974236-3-7. Published 2003 by Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall.
Price: 240 SEK (approx. 25 EUR)

Ayse Erkmen at the threshold by Daniel Birnbaum

AYSE ERKMEN MOVE THINGS AROUND. Objects, great and small, are moved sideways, lifted a few centimeters, or suddenly hover high over the roof. What happens to an object when it changes context? What happens to the person who believed he was familiar with the object as well as its context? The threshold is the place where everything is at stake. Sometimes, it is a question of small and subtle displacements; sometimes of long-winded and demanding operations. The first time I was confronted by Erkmen’s work, it was hardly one of the more subtle transpositions. On the contrary, a noisy helicopter was transporting classical sculptures from one of Münster’s museums to a kind of platform on the roof of a building facing the city’s famous cathedral. But before the sculptures were finally deposited there, they got to have a good aerial tour of the city and of the church’s two towers.

Erkmen’s original proposal for the show – the 1997 Sculpture Projects Münster – was to somehow involve the cathedral. She put forward one idea after another, all of them interesting and far from being provocative or in any way blasphemous. But none of the proposals was accepted by the administration at the church. Her final idea, which was realized, where only indirectly connected with the cathedral. The figures suspended in mid-air, all of them statues from the 15th and 16th centuries, came to be associated with the cathedral because of their physical proximity but they were not a part of the building and the artist did not have to ask for permission either. All the same, the work was not simply taking place in the immediate vicinity of the cathedral but in a drastic and humorous way also formed a link with the world of the church. The swaying sculptures reminded many of the scene from Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita”. Were these levitating figures not a miracle? To be sure, the helicopter sound was deafening and the wind produced by the rotating propellers made the trees bend and the hair of the art crowd watching stand up. And still, when do you get to see magnificent sculptures like these hovering over a modern German city? Yes, it was miraculous.

Another example of physical displacement: “Shipped Ships” (2001) is the name of Erkmen’s most encompassing and physically most ambitious artwork, if that is really the right word for a logistical operation of this kind. Three ships – one from Venice, one from the Japanese city of Shingu, and one from the artist’s own hometown of Istanbul – were transported by boat to the financial hub of Frankfurt am Main, there to operate as river boats during a few spring weeks. For a very low payment anyone could ride the boats, which went back and forth between a set of bridges on the Main according to a reliable timetable. The crew on the boats had come with them from their various hometowns so that Turkish was the main language spoken on the Defterdar, Italian on the Tessèra, and Japanese was dominant on Kumano No. 59. Tourists and Frankfurt residents could simply buy a ticket and be taken up and down the river to see the city from a new perspective. That is what happened during these spring weeks, and very few participants seemed to be too worried about whether it was art.

But of course posing the question is not wholly irrelevant. What makes these foreign boats being driven through German waters by their normal crews into art? And if they are accepted as art, to what genre do they belong – sculpture, installation, or performance? In a conversation about “Shipped Ships”, the artist explains: “I am very happy with the fact that people are not sure if they are dealing with an artwork. Sometimes someone would ask in a critical tone, ‘Where is the art in this project?’ I think this is something important. I like this question, which indicates that we are moving in a region between art and non-art. People could simply use the boats, or they could also see them as art. They could participate in the situation, or they could see the whole thing as art.” With next to nothing or using an enormous technical apparatus, Erkmen creates situations in the vague borderland between a practical world and a world of subtle shifts of meaning and function that we classify as art in the absence of other options. This is no longer the old discussion about “readymades” – the discussion initiated by Marcel Duchamp at the beginning of the 20th century, continued in one way or another by Andy Warhol, and then given a new twist by Jeff Koons and 1980s appropriation art – insofar as the objects or situations that Erkmen observes can no longer be moved in an unambiguous manner into an institution that belongs to the art world. The status of Erkmen’s flying sculptures does not change in any clear-cut way. They are not lifted into a museum. On the contrary, the statues are flown out of a museum. And nor do the ships change place in this clear-cut way. They have not been placed in an institution: they are still being used. They are not watched over by a museum guard but by the same old crew, which is being commanded by the same old captain rather than by a museum director. The ships are still in water, though it is new water. Is this new German water so radically different that it can transform a boat into an artwork? (…)

(Excerpt from the catalogue text Ayse Erkmen at the Treshold by Daniel Birnbaum, 2003.)